The Archer (2017)


(2017) Action (MarVista) Bailey Noble, Jeanine Mason, Michael Grant Terry, Bill Sage, Dendrie Taylor, Kyanna Simone, Alexis Rosinski, Timothy Granaderos, Kurt Fuller, Grace Victoria Cox, Anastasia Markova, JoAnna Rhambo, Kalista Dwyer, Kathi Anderson, India’yolanda Collins. Directed by Valerie Weiss

As the war on drugs (and the accompanying war on crime) has created more and more convicts, prison systems throughout the country have been overwhelmed. Most states have turned to corporate prisons rather than building new ones. Keeping those prisons filled has become a priority – by any means necessary.

Lauren Pierce (Noble) is a champion archer with Olympic aspirations. Being raised by a single mom (Taylor), she pals around with Nina (Markova) who is her best friend. Lauren doesn’t approve of her douchebag boyfriend (Granaderos) who is abusive but Nina, like a lot of young girls, makes excuses for the transgressions of her boo. Lauren has ulterior motives; she’s attracted towards Nina as well. However, when she’s finally getting somewhere with Nina, big bad boyfriend shows up at the door and begins roughing up Nina when he doesn’t get what he wants. Lauren tries to intervene and the idiot boyfriend tries the same tactics on her. That wasn’t a particularly good idea; Lauren beats the living snot out of him.

However, beating the living snot out of someone can get you arrested and Lauren is sentenced to a youth camp for an indefinite amount of time. There she’s taken under the wing of the warden, Bob Patrice (Sage) who is a bow-hunter himself and is eager to take Lauren’s training to the next level. However, Lauren soon discovers that the good warden isn’t quite so good after all and that the male guards are all out to get themselves a little bit of young tail, particularly Bob’s son Michael (Terry) who with his bowl haircut you just know is going to be a pervert.

Lauren is befriended by Rebecca (Mason), a kind of Goth girl who has a history of trying to escape but has essentially given up. After Michael tries to attack Rebecca and Lauren once again comes to the rescue, the two women realize they have a real shot of making it out of prison – especially since Lauren has discovered her indefinite stay has just been extended. She and Rebecca find their way to the Warden’s residence where they make a discovery that will blow the whole sordid corrupt situation with the camp completely out of the water – if they can avoid the bullets of the deputies and the arrows of the warden, that is.

If this sounds like a women’s prison movie from the 70s, that’s because it essentially is. Oh, there’s a veneer of social injustice ripped from the headlines (more on that later) but trust me, this is all B-movie exploitation. Why else would you have two beautiful young women, on the run from nutcases and in a situation where time is of the essence, decide to take a long steamy shower – together? I do like Weiss’ instincts when it comes to empowering Lauren but showing Lauren’s hormones taking a superior position to her intellect doesn’t help the cause. Then again, I wonder if I would say the same thing if a male hero stopped to have a sex scene during a pursuit. I would like to hope I would.

Noble does a good job In an action role and I could see her getting more of those sorts of roles in the future. The cast is largely unknown and they at least nobody disgraces themselves; for the most part the performances here are satisfactory or better. They could have used some dialogue that didn’t make them sound like they were being paid by Roger Corman.

I will say that every single male in this picture is either corrupt, perverted, evil or all three. There isn’t a single male role that has a redeeming quality. Given the heavy lesbian overtones of the film (most of the women in the movie are either lesbians or victims) some conservative sorts might connect the dots which again doesn’t do the message that the movie is trying to send any favors. Not all men are evil and not all women are victims. One can be a good person without finding the same sex attractive or having testicles.

There is some beautiful cinematography here and that’s to be commended, but the movie falls apart when you examine the plot too closely. For example, there is an African-American character who appears to have some importance early on in the film but just disappears completely as Lauren makes friends with Rebecca. For another, as the girls are fleeing, they have the opportunity to take a truck and make it to civilization much faster; instead they choose to go on foot. We know they both are able to drive and they’re both intelligent; the only reason they go on foot is so that the pursuit can be more personal. It’s a situation where the plot ditches logic to serve an agenda which in this case is to finish with a face-to-face confrontation. There are a lot of ways that could have occurred without sacrificing common sense.

At times this felt like a Lifetime Movie and not in a good way. While there have been some pretty good Lifetime Movies, for the most part they’ve been cheap parbroilers that appeal to the visceral (much like SyFy original movies in that sense). The issue that the film is dealing with is a real one and an important one, but by coating it in a B-movie exploitation batter and deep frying the lot the message gets lost in all the grease. I suspect that Weiss has more to offer than this kind of stuff. I’m not above enjoying a good exploitation film from time to time – not every movie has to stimulate the cortex but it’s hard to take seriously a movie that wants to be a message movie at the same time taking up the flag for exploitation. You have to choose a side.

REASONS TO GO: There are some beautiful vistas of the mountains of Southern California. Kind of a women’s prison movie with an indie lesbian bent.
REASONS TO STAY: Also a bit of a Lifetime Movie to be honest. Way too many plot holes to overlook.
FAMILY VALUES: There are plenty of scenes of sexuality as well as some disturbing images and a bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was inspired by actual events in Pennsylvania.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/28/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Caged Heat
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Honky Tonk Heaven: Legend of the Broken Spoke

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The Hunger Games: Catching Fire


Stanley Tucci is surprised by the sudden proposal of Jennifer Lawrence.

Stanley Tucci is surprised by the sudden proposal of Jennifer Lawrence.

(2013) Science Fiction (Lionsgate) Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Donald Sutherland, Stanley Tucci, Sam Claflin, Jeffrey Wright, Amanda Plummer, Jena Malone, Toby Jones, Lynn Cohen, Patrick St. Esprit, Meta Golding, Megan Hayes. Directed by Francis Lawrence

With the Twilight series completed (at least for now), the studios scrambled to find a new franchise that would appeal to a similar demographic. They’ve found it with The Hunger Games based on the best-selling Young Adult book series by Suzanne Collins.

Following the events of the first film (there are spoilers for that film if you haven’t seen it yet), Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Hutcherson) are preparing to go on their Victor’s Tour of the 12 Districts of Panem, a traditional responsibility of the winners. Their love story has captivated all of Panem which has the tyrannical President Snow (Sutherland) a bit worried. You see, he has seen through the pair’s ruse. Katniss still has it bad for the strapping miner Gale Hawthorne (Hemsworth) and her sham relationship with Peeta was something done so that they could both survive. Snow warns Katniss that she not only has to convince Panem that her feelings for Peeta are genuine – she has to convince the President first of all.

This isn’t the same Panem that Katniss left however. The repressive policies that have created such a wide gulf between the haves of Capital and the Have-Nots of the Districts has begun to spark some thoughts of uprising with Katniss herself a symbol that is giving the people the courage to stand up for themselves. The new master of the games, Plutarch Heavensbee (Hoffman) agrees with the President that Katniss needs to go – but not as a martyr. She must be associated with the government of Panem and become a symbol of its corruption and repression – then they can kill her.

And he has just the means to do it. The 75th Edition of the Hunger Games is coming up, the so-called Quarter Quell and rather than getting all-new tributes, Heavensbee proposes that the tributes be reaped from the existing pool of victors. Katniss, as the only female winner from District 12 is automatically chosen to go and this time she’ll be up against trained killers who have a win in the Games to their credit. This will be a Hunger Games like none seen before.

While director Gary Ross has exited and Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend) has stepped in, there are plenty of familiar faces including Haymitch (Harrelson), the alcoholic former winner who has become mentor to Peeta and Katniss; Effie (Banks), Caesar (Tucci) the smarmy host of the Games whose capped teeth can be seen from space and Cinna (Kravitz), the brilliant clothing designer who is largely responsible for Katniss’ popularity and image.

There are also new faces mostly the tributes for the Quarter Quell including the hunky Finnick (Claflin), his mentor Mags (Cohen), the brainy engineer Beetee (Wright) and the savant Wiress (Plummer), as well as the buttkicking Johanna (Malone) whose motivations remain unclear. The overall performance level has been raised significantly from the first film.

So too have the special effects. There is a sequence in which a kind of mandrill-like monkey clan attacks and it is done so smoothly and seamlessly that it doesn’t seem like CGI at all. The look of the film is pretty satisfying in every sense.

More importantly, there’s so much going on here than just a mere action tale or a romance. There are all sorts of underlying subtexts from the class warfare to the vapid fashion-obsessed culture to the role of mass media in shaping opinion. That’s the kind of thing that makes a critic’s heart beat faster – assuming they have the gumption to look more closely at the movie or its source material.

Lawrence has won an Oscar since the last time she played Katniss and her self-confidence from that clearly shows in Kat’s own growth. While Hemsworth is a fine actor, it’s Hutcherson who captured my attention and seemed to make a better foil for Ms. Everdeen. However, be warned that some of the romantic elements don’t have the same amount of complexity that the rest of the story has and so it seems aimed more squarely at juvenile hearts. Also it should be said that at times Katniss is of a participant in her own story and more of a reactant. For someone who is as supposedly kickass a warrior and strong in spirit she can come off as a self-pitying wimp in places. I don’t think it’s Ms. Lawrence’s fault so much as it is male writers who have problems writing strong female characters. I’d love to see a female screenwriter take a crack at the next one although I understand that’s fairly unlikely an occurrence.

Still, this is solid entertainment that is going to capture the imaginations of its young female core audience. Katniss is truly a heroine to be admired, much more so than Bella Swan. In every respect this is a superior franchise to that other one with a lead character who is much worthier of being a role model despite the occasional hiccups. I wasn’t sure if I cared about seeing a sequel after the first Hunger Games; after the second, I can’t wait for the third.

REASONS TO GO: Some fine performances and action sequences along with a solid storyline.

REASONS TO STAY: Stumbles over itself with occasional overkill and main character sometimes doesn’t seem true to her own traits.

FAMILY VALUES:  Plenty of action and violence, with a few frightening images, some suggestive situations, a couple of instances of bad language and overall thematic elements not for the very young.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Some of the Capitol scenes were filmed at the Atlanta Marriott Marquis hotel which also happens to be where Dragoncon, one of the Southeast’s premiere conventions, takes place.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/9/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 89% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Running Man

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Muscle Shoals

Brave


Brave

Merida takes aim at teen angst.

(2012) Animated Feature (Disney*Pixar) Starring the voices of Kelly Macdonald, Emma Thompson, Billy Connolly, Julie Walters, Kevin McKidd, Craig Ferguson, Robbie Coltrane, Sally Kinghorn, Eilidh Fraser, Peigi Barker, Steven Cree, John Ratzenberger. Directed by Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman

 

Fate is a word we sometimes bandy around with negative connotations. There are those of us who believe that it implies that our destiny is set in stone, that we are doomed to live a certain type of life. Some believe that fate is not necessarily set in stone – it can be changed with the right impetus.

Merida (Macdonald) is of the latter sort. She is a spunky, willful princess – literally. She’s the daughter of King Fergus (Connolly) of Scotland, a gruff rough and tumble sort who’s leg was bitten off by a bear that attacked his family, including Queen Elinor (Thompson) who some years later delivered triplets – three wee devils who act as comic relief in the castle.

Merida finds nothing funny about life  though. She longs to go on adventures like her dad, and has become quite the archer. Her mother, though, wants her only daughter to be a proper princess, one who will grow up into a beautiful, regal Queen. And it’s about high time she did; while Elinor nags, Merida stews. And when Merida becomes of marriageable age, as is traditional among the clans a competition will be held to determine which Lord’s son will win the hand of the fair maiden – be it the sons of Lord Dingwall (Coltrane), Lord Macintosh (Ferguson) or Lord MacGuffin (McKidd) – all of whom have travelled to the castle of King Fergus for the games, feasting and tales of bear hunting.

Merida is having none of it. She is for one thing a far better archer than any of the scions of the clans. And for another, she doesn’t want to get married (and to be honest, she is nowhere near ready to be). She and her mother can barely hold a civil conversation and her Dad is too engrossed in the feasting and tale-telling to really notice. So Merida goes off for a ride and finds herself in a Stonehenge-like circle of sacred stones from whence the wills-o’-the-wisp lead her to the cottage of an eccentric witch (Walters) whom Merida asks to purchase a spell from – a spell that will allow her mother to change her mind and in doing so, changing Merida’s fate. However, like most spells that are selfish in origin, it doesn’t go exactly according to plan.

There is an air of mystery and mysticism here that is very welcome. Here we get to see Scotland as a magical land that is wild, beautiful and just a little bit off-kilter. Yes, pun intended. The animation here is gorgeous – quite possibly the best and most intricate that Pixar has accomplished up to now. The look is very much like classic Disney animation and that’s not by accident.

Thinking about it, this is quite the gathering of the clans if your clans are Scottish actors and actors of Scottish descent. It gives them a chance to air out their brogues a little. I have an affection for the accent and even though it can be hard to understand for those who aren’t used to it although to be fair it’s toned down here so it’s pretty easily understandable even for those who don’t have the ear for it.

There is quite a dynamic that goes on between Elinor and Merida – like many mother-daughter relationships it’s love-hate. And, like most teens and their parents, you have two sides talking and neither side listening. Elinor at first is a mom who has a vision in her head of what she wants her daughter to be – without taking into account what her daughter wants to make of herself. For Merida’s part, she’s willful and stubborn, openly defiant of her parents and quite a bit stubborn. Her means of communicating is to make pronouncements and that doesn’t go over well with her mum.

In fact, Merida’s spoiled behavior leads directly to some fairly savage consequences for her family. Now, as a parent I can tell you that tolerance is a great big survival skill for any parent of a teen – they are going to make mistakes no matter how much you try to warn them (pretty much the way we did when we were teens) but I have to admit, it is rare for any parent to have to deal with a mistake the magnitude that Merida makes. Yes, I’m being deliberately vague here because not knowing the nature of what Merida did and the consequences that ensued makes the movie so much more enjoyable, although I have seen a couple of reviews that have spoiled it – including the usually-reliable Roger Ebert, so take that into account when reading before seeing.

This is quite a departure for Pixar – straight into Disney territory. Think about all the elements you have here – a feisty princess, a witch who lives in an isolated cottage in the woods, danger, intrigue – all that is lacking here is true love’s kiss – but then Merida would much rather kiss a frog than a thousand princes. Still, after the lackluster effort that was Cars 2 this is a welcome return to form.

REASONS TO GO: Maybe the best animation in Pixar’s history. Goofy when it needs to be.

REASONS TO STAY: Seems to glorify willful, spoiled behavior.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some sequences that might be frightening for toddlers, and there is a bit of rude humor.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Pixar’s first film set in the past, the first to feature a female protagonist and Merida the first Pixar character to become a Disney princess.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/8/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 77% positive reviews. Metacritic: 69/100. The reviews are solid.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mulan

BEAR LOVERS: We see bears of all sorts in the film, including three little ones, a mama bear and a scary bear.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Ted

We Need to Talk About Kevin


We Need to Talk About Kevin

Sometimes the glass is neither half-full nor half-empty; it's just plain empty.

(2011) Psychological Thriller (Oscilloscope Laboratories) Tilda Swinton, John C. Reilly, Ezra Miller, Jasper Newell, Rock Duer, Ashley Gerasimovich, Siobhan Fallon Hogan, Alex Manette, Kenneth Franklin, Erin Darke, Ursula Parker. Directed by Lynne Ramsay

 

Being a parent is a terrible job. You try to guide your child into making good decisions but yet they insist on doing things that are hurtful to themselves and others. Your advice is sneered at and your opinions are unwanted. It’s a lot like living with a demonic entity. You only can hope and pray that they’ll grow into responsibility and maturity which they generally do with no help from you. However, there are cases that are special – and not in a good way.

Eva Khatchadourian (Swinton) lives in a kind of half-light between twilight and full-blown night. She self-medicates with alcohol and pills; her face is a mask of numbed misery, the face of someone who knows life is horrible and full of pain and meant to be endured, not experienced.

She wasn’t always like that. She used to be carefree and full of life. She had the love of Franklin (Reilly), a decent man and a kindred spirit. She traveled the world. Then she got pregnant.

From the beginning, Kevin (Duer) was a handful, screaming constantly to the point where while on walks with her baby in his carriage she would pause by the jackhammers of construction workers to drown his squalling out. Then, her husband would arrive home and the screaming would end. “See?” Franklin would exclaim, “You only need to rock him a little bit,” while the exhausted new mother looks on in disbelief.

As Kevin grows into a young child (Newell), his development is out of whack – or so it seems. He doesn’t speak – not because he can’t but because he refuses to and he never utters the word “mama.” He chooses not to engage with his mother. He wears diapers until he’s in grade school – not because he doesn’t know how to go to the potty but because he can torture his mother by pooping in his pants at inopportune moments. He glares at his mother because of some unspeakable crime only he knows about and sets upon punishing his mother for the act of giving birth to him – torturing her and beating her down with misbehavior, but absolutely delightful with everyone else.

As Kevin grows older, into his teens (Miller) his petty acts of vandalism escalate, killing the beloved pet of his little sister (Gerasimovich) and “accidentally” causing her to lose an eye when she knocks some household cleaners into it. However, these are merely the opening acts for a spectacular finale that is still to come.

Ramsay tells this story, based on the novel by Lionel Shriver, non-sequentially, allowing the story to drift from present to past over 18 years. Some have found it confusing but I actually think it a brilliant move. Past and present exist as one in Eva’s benumbed brain, as she tortures herself with what every parent does – what did I do wrong? How could I have done better?

It becomes apparent early on that Kevin has committed some horrible act that has turned the community against Eva, causing them to splatter her home and car with red paint, to slap her outside her place of work and to break all of her eggs in their carton in the grocery store. She puts up with all of this with the misery of a self-flagellator.

Part of why this works so well is the performance of Tilda Swinton. She was nominated for a Golden Globe for her work here and to my mind should have gotten an Oscar nod as well. Eva represses her feelings big time but we see them in her eyes; she’s haunted by the specters of what could have been and what has been. She can’t escape her past and she doesn’t think she deserves to. She’s racked with guilt and is in every sense of the word a broken woman, but it wasn’t an abusive spouse or boyfriend who did it – it was her son.

Both Miller and Newell are absolutely creepy as Kevin at various stages of life. This must have been completely alien to their way of thinking – without any regard for human feeling, delighting in the agony of others. How, at such young ages, do they gather the life experience needed to play someone like Kevin so well? Yet they both do. Kevin at all stages of his life is entirely believable as a sociopath and if he hadn’t have been, Swinton’s performance would have been entirely wasted.

As a parent I left the movie thinking to myself “what would I have done?” Probably very much the same as Eva I suppose. Franklin was completely oblivious to Kevin’s growing evil, mainly by design. Kevin’s final act of horror is to create a torture so ingenious and elegant in its complete evil for his mother, tying her to an area where she will be the object of scorn and hatred as well as the memories of those gone before her.

And that’s the haunting element of the film. How could someone do something like that? What drives them? How is it that you could torture someone you love knowingly? These are questions that are generated by this movie and perhaps are impossible to answer. Did Kevin become evil because of the way his mother brought him up (which the movie shows wasn’t always the most loving in the world) or was he born that way, wired for it? I don’t have any answers for that and I suspect we probably never will.

REASONS TO GO: Swinton is spectacular here. Leaves you with many questions after the film is over. Extremely melancholic.

REASONS TO STAY: Some might find it morbid and too intense.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some very disturbing scenes of sociopathic behavior and some violence, as well as a smattering of sexuality and some fairly raw language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was in development for six years, delayed mainly with BBC Film’s concern over the budget.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/9/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 78% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100. The reviews are resoundingly good.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Beautiful Boy

RADIOHEAD LOVERS: The music for the film was composed by lead guitarist Jonny Greenwood.

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: Salmon Fishing in the Yemen